HOUSTON — Matt Joyce had been ready since the early innings, when the Rays got the sense it was going to be one of those games with the Astros. As rapidly as the runs were piling up and as quickly as the Rays were going through their bench and their bullpen, he knew he'd be used as a pinch-hitter.
He just didn't expect to hear his name then, as Sean Rodriguez was headed from the on-deck circle to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, the Rays a run down in what had already been a wild afternoon and no other position players left. But manager Joe Maddon made what he admitted was a very difficult and frenzied decision, and Joyce scrambled to pull on his batting gloves, pop on a helmet and grab his bat.
He took two balls from closer Mark Melancon then swung and missed twice. And then he delivered a two-run double, the biggest hit on a day of big ones as the Rays outlasted the Astros for a hard-earned 14-10 victory.
"To win it the way we did and battle it out is definitely a testimony to the team's determination and character and how bad these guys want to win," Joyce said. "Today was definitely a big win."
The win capped a sweep of the worst-in-baseball Astros, extended the Rays' run through this segment of interleague play to 8-1 and pushed them to a season-high 10 games over .500 at 44-34.
"These are the kind of games that we need to win," Evan Longoria said. "Just find a way to win."
Joyce had the biggest hit, but Longoria (who also turned a key double play) was in the running. Going without batting gloves for a third straight game, he hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie it at 7 and a three-run shot in the ninth that provided a needed cushion. For the series, he was 8-for-14 with three homers and 10 RBIs, and though his batting gloves were sitting on top of his equipment bag, he doesn't expect to put them on any time soon.
"It feels pretty good right now," Longoria said. "It's all in the way my swing's feeling. It just so happened that it started happening without the batting gloves. And it's going to continue until either my hands go or I've got to change it up again."
The Rays tied their season high with 19 hits, and it seemed they needed every one of them because they didn't pitch very well, starting with Jeff Niemann lasting only three innings.
"We knew it would be a dogfight," B.J. Upton said. "We knew it would be a long one. We just didn't know how long."
Upton had a key hit, a three-run homer in the first, marking the second time in his career he'd gone deep in three straight games. So did Casey Kotchman, who followed Joyce's double with a two-run single that expanded the lead from 9-8 to 11-8. Johnny Damon had four hits. Heck, even two pitchers got hits — the first time that has happened in 2,181 Rays games — as Niemann singled in the second and Wade Davis, as a pinch-hitter, singled in the ninth.
The game had gone back and forth so much — the Rays leading 3-0, trailing 5-4, tied at 5, down 7-5, tied again at 7, down 8-7 — that Maddon figured he had to take his chance with Joyce in the eighth.
Even though it meant he would be out of hitters and could be forced to have a pitcher bat second in the ninth down a run, and even though it meant he had no one to catch in the event of emergency, he called for Joyce.
"That's a pretty tough decision right there in a sense," Maddon said. "You're thinking all that, but at the end of the day the one thought that was overriding was, the bases are loaded, two outs, this is your best chance to win the game right there. And that's what I went with."
"I didn't know," Joyce said. "Honestly, I didn't have my batting gloves on. I didn't expect to hit for Roddy because I kind of expected to hit for a pitcher in the later innings. With how it worked out and a big opportunity like that, he definitely made the right decision."
Nearly four hours after they started, it worked out that way.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]